1. The Ravens needed a game like this, a game where they showed up ready to play, but still ended up in a backyard brawl. They needed a game where they were forced to make some adjustments at halftime, and use those adjustments to come up big in the fourth quarter. It wasn't particularly pretty, but that's not a bad thing. Because this game taught us a lot about the 2011 Ravens.
I'm not saying anything revelatory when I point out that the NFL season is a grind, but it's worth mentioning again. It is a freaking grind. Not every win is going to be memorable, or pretty, or dominant. Sometimes, it's just about adjustments and about survival. This win probably won't linger too long in the eyes of many Ravens fans, but I'd argue it told us more about Ravens than the victory over the Jets did.
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Even though the Texans were playing without their two best players, I figured this would still be the kind of game that could give the Ravens trouble. Matt Schaub has always been pretty good at holding up against pressure, accurate with the ball even when he takes a beating, and the Texans defense has improved significantly under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. This is a group of players and coaches that came into town knowing their season might be at a crossroads if they suffered another loss. And even though the Ravens dominated on their first offensive possession, the Texans punched right back instead of folding (like the Steelers, Rams and Jets did).
But what impressed me the most was something we learned after the game.
Every week, it seems, we (both the media and the fans) have a debate over whether or not Cam Cameron gets the ball to Rice enough, whether he favors throwing it over running it too much. And don't think for a second the players don't hear that debate, when they're in their cars listening to the radio, or in the locker room or in meetings, talking amongst themselves. I can promise you, they do the same thing we do. But Rice -- who rushed for just 16 yards in the first half -- stood up at halftime and said something that shows just how much he's evolving into a leader on this team. He said he didn't care what the play call was. All that mattered was getting it right.
"'No matter what the play call is, let's execute [better]," Rice says he told his teammates. "If it's a pass, then let's complete a pass. If it's a 3-yard completion, then let's complete it. If it's a 3-yard run, then let's run for 3 yards.' But we can't play like we're down when we're winning."
Football has always been a fascinating blend of emotion, physical execution and tactics. Rice managed to combine all three in the second half. He gave his speech about just focusing on doing your job and letting the coaches do theirs. He got fired up when one of the Texans players grabbed his face mask, twisted his neck, and wasn't flagged. ("I was hot," Rice said. "I let it go, but I was definitely hot.") And he went to running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery at one point during the third quarter (right after a 5-yard loss) and said the Ravens needed to switch from their outside zone running attack to an inside zone. The Texans linebackers were flowing to the ball too quickly, Rice felt, and they'd be vulnerable to inside traps and backdoor cuts. He and Montgomery went to Cameron, and Cameron trusted their eyes and immediately made the switch. Suddenly, the Ravens run game started clicking, which opened up play-action fakes again. Rice finished with 101 yards, including a 27-yard burst that helped put the game away.
"I would like to thank the coaches for not blinking," Rice said. "Coach Harbaugh said it was nerve, but I'd say it was poise."
It's a long season, and you have to be cautious about looking at a snapshot of one moment and assuming it has a much larger meaning. But I think we're seeing a coaching staff that's trusting the input they get from players more. I think we're seeing a team that's able to adapt on the fly. And I think we're seeing a team that doesn't panic. All of that reflects growth from 2010.
2. Joe Flacco will still struggle when he's pressured, maybe even a bit more than he should, but he's getting better at making his best throws when he absolutely has to.
It almost doesn't matter where you stand on Flacco at this point, because if you wait around for a quarter, he's bound to prove you right (or wrong). He spent much of 2010 looking like a Pro Bowl quarterback for one half, and a journeyman the other half, and in 2011, those manic swings have almost gotten more extreme. Some possessions he'll look like a Hall of Famer, and then he'll turn around and look like he's channeling the Ghost of Stoney Case. The ball he threw to Anquan Boldin in the third quarter -- a 56-yard teardrop that led to a field goal by Billy Cundiff and helped the Ravens regain the lead for good 16-14 -- was one of the prettiest passes I've ever seen him throw.
But I think even more impressive, and what I'll take away from this game, was the two perfect throws he made in the fourth quarter to help the Ravens ice the game. The Ravens were leading 19-14 with 6:38 to play when they got the ball at their own 34-yard line, and I thought to myself, "This is exactly the kind of possession where, in 2010, they would go 3-and-out." But Flacco stepped up on second down and fired a laser to Boldin, who was running an out route from the slot, for 11 yards. The very next play, the Ravens ran a naked bootleg and Flacco, rolling hard to his right, threw a perfect ball to Ed Dickson for 13 yards.
They looked, to me, like his two best throws of the night, especially when you factored in the moment and just how accurate they were. When I tracked him down in the locker room to ask about them, Flacco was quick to agree. In fact, those two throws fit right in with what he was talking about in the beginning of training camp, when he stood up and stated that he wanted the ball in his hands at the end of games.
"You've have to convert first downs in that situation," Flacco said. "And when you can make those plays, when you have guys you're confident are going to catch the ball with their hands and made plays in tight spots, especially when the defense is trying to stop the run, it's going to be a good thing for us."
Say what you will about Flacco -- and like a lot of fans, I've said my fair share complimentary and critical things -- he doesn't seem particularly affected either way. Yes, it may be in the best interests of the Ravens to turn to Rice and Ricky Williams to win games, but Flacco still wants a lot of it to fall on his shoulders. He wants to throw passes in those situations. And whether you agree with the call or not, it's still a good thing that Flacco wants to take over. Doesn't matter if he's thrown 11 consecutive incompletions, he still wants to make the aggressive call.
"That's what it's all about," Flacco said. "I think we're all men enough to say 'Hey, this is how we're going to have to win the game. We'd better stick with this in order to win the game. And if we lose it, we lose it. We're all men here. This is NFL football. And I think we're trying to be aggressive. You can't run the ball three times when they're sitting in the box and give it right back to teams. You have to keep the aggression going and keep the momentum going, and I think that's what we're working toward."
3. Even after nearly two years of watching him boom kickoffs and field goals, I'm still not sure we appreciate just how remarkable Billy Cundiff's story is. Even with the new kickoff rules, he's an incredible weapon.
When Cundiff blasted a kickoff into the stands on Sunday -- a kick that, when you think about out, had to travel more than 80 yards in the air -- it really made me smile. I don't know if there are too many people in football history who looked liked their career was over, who then spent two full years out of the NFL, and who then returned to the game and appeared to be even better than they were previously. Imagine if Jameel McClain was cut by the Ravens, spent two years training by himself, and then returned to the league and played at a level on par with Ray Lewis. Because that's virtually the equivalent of Cundiff's story. He set a Ravens team record with seven touchbacks on Sunday, and also made five field goals, tying a team record he shares with Matt Stover.